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Minute of the Q&B Spring Gathering 5th April 2014

Co-operatives: how to set one up and how to get involved

Some 31 of us met in the Priory Rooms, at Bull Street Quaker Meeting House in Birmingham, to consider Co-operatives, the co-operative movement, their history and their plans for the future.

A co-operative with limited liability, we learned, is a group of people who associate together to meet an economic or social need of their own and in their community, in a way which meets the need and pays its way.

A limited company is an organisation owned by its shareholders, which exists to create wealth for the private ownership of its shareholders by selling its services wherever it can, by bringing benefit to its customers, its suppliers, and (sometimes) to its communities too.

Our Speaker Nick Matthews, Chairman of Co-operatives UK, reminded us of the shared history of Friends and the Co-operative Movement's first creators in the late 1600s and the early 1700s. The seminal contributions of John Bellers, William Thompson, Robert Owen were linked together. The 19th Century thinkers John Stuart Mill the social philosopher and Alfred Marshall the early classical economist were set in their historical context, which from the mid 19th Century has led to today's reality. Since its launch in the 1850s, the plc, the limited liability company designed to create private wealth for its owners is the dominant form, whilst the Co-op (whose structure is of similar vintage), and which is designed to create wealth for the community it serves, is not. Why?

We learned that the Co-operative Movement worldwide is in good health – more so in many other countries than it is in ours. We learned of some of the barriers and difficulties co-operatives have had to overcome in the UK during the 20th Century, including being out-competed by plcs in terms of: access to investment money; speed and scale of response to changing market circumstances; suffering from higher costs; being slower to take up new technologies; and, also, to suffering a series of social image barriers at times and in places. We also learned of the flawed tendency of social theoreticians to see private ownership as effective, and shared ownership as less effective, as its supposedly leads to lesser concern for the assets in use and perhaps less clear economic roles.

However, the future is not all bleak: we heard from Olivia Birch and from Paul Birch of their present experiences in leading a retail co-operative, and in forging a brand new co-operative business activity – in coffee! Co-operative businesses are increasing in number and by turnover, in the UK now too, as well as worldwide. Some elsewhere are truly enormous. Here, the renewable energy sector is a growth area for co-operative businesses.

We considered the practical issues of running co-operatives well, and the issues when addressed correctly can lead to the creation of new co-operatives. We learned of the sources of good advice which exist to help co-operative start and succeed, and heard examples of success and of the personal and competitive difficulties encountered in doing business the co-operative way in a dominantly private capitalist world. The issues include: the ethics of the organisation, the openness it practices with its employees, the vision and commitment of its leadership, the eternal need to be close to the membership, and sustaining its purposes and culture. We learned that co-operatives can succeed where plcs fail, and that some in other countries are huge and successful for their members and communities. We were invited to remember: Just because its a co-op, that doesn't give it the right to continue existing anyway! If its members and customers want it to exist, if its leaders and managers know how to run it at least as well as its competitors are run, then the co-op can exist.

We then practised starting up a co-operative, using Phil Beardmore's (from Co-operatives West Midlands) process model, and realised what can be done relatively simply with shared wisdom and collaborative endeavour:- so long as we have the Vision, good governance, a viable business model, the resources, the relationships, the skills - and the passion!

We reminded ourselves that the language of the spirit is more important than the language of self interest, when seeking new and better ways of mending the world. A co-operative could become a self interest society in disguise! We seek a deeper meaning in the purposes of our work. There is nothing wrong with making a profit, it is what is done with it that matters.

We thank our speakers, and take away with us new ideas, knowledge and thoughts to bring each of us into our own work in the world, that we may perhaps help within our powers and spheres mend its sore places, by helping to move some of its presently pressing problems into the past.

We hope Q&B will consider creating stronger links with the Quaker Schools including on the topic of co-operatives, and explore the Co-operative Colleges and Young Friends Housing initiatives.

Timothy Phillips
Minute Clerk
5 April 2014

List of Organisations to help you with developing Co-operatives:

  • Co-operative Development Agencies
  • Housing Co-operative Development Agencies

Representative Bodies

Select a Structure – a tool on Co-operatives UK's website